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The Top 10 Daytona 500s of All Time

Brian KennedyCorrespondent IFebruary 1, 2011

The Top 10 Daytona 500's Of All Time

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    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    We are less than two weeks away from the Great American Race, the Daytona 500. Last year's Daytona 500 produced a surprise winner in Jamie McMurray. The 500 has always been known for hard, close racing that leaves fans guessing who the winner will be on the last lap.

    While last year's race was a memorable one, it pales in comparison to the greatest Daytona 500 races in history. Last lap passes, fights and controversy all make the list as we countdown the 10 best Daytona 500's of all time.

#10: Hendrick Motorsports Finishes 1-2-3 (1997)

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    The mid-90's in Nascar was dominated by Rick Hendrick and his group of drivers. Jeff Gordon won his first title in 1995, and Terry Labonte took home the crown the following year. In all, Hendrick Motorsports would win four Nascar Sprint Cup titles during the decade.

    But 1997 brought uncertainty for Hendrick Motorsports. Rick Hendrick had been diagnosed with leukemia in November of 1996 and many were wondering if he would return to run the company. As Hendrick was going through treatments, his teams started the season off with a bang as Jeff Gordon recorded his first Daytona 500 win. Gordon would become the youngest driver to win the Daytona 500 with his victory. Terry Labonte started his 1997 year with a second place finish, and new Hendrick driver Ricky Craven finished third.

    Gordon would go on to win his second Sprint Cup title at the end of the year to continue the Hendrick dominance of the 90's.

#9: Father Beats Son (1988)

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    Daddy knows best – never had that adage been so true than the 1988 Daytona 500. Fifty-one-year-old Bobby Allison was a legend in Nascar, leader of the Alabama Gang and nearing the end of his career. Son Davey was an up-and-coming star who had won the 1987 Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year and was looking for his first Daytona 500 victory.

    Entering the final laps of the race, father and son teamed up to pass leader Darrell Waltrip. With one lap to go, fans were waiting to make his move. As the cars went into turn 3, Bobby went high and gave Davey room to try to contest for the win. It would not be enough, as Bobby would cross the start/finish line to win his third Daytona 500.

    After the race, Davey would go to the victory lane and celebrate with his father. It would be four years before Davey won his first (and only) Daytona 500 in 1992. Sadly, Davey Allison would be killed in a helicopter accident the next year in 1993.

    After his win at Daytona, Bobby Allison would race until the middle of the season after a horrific wreck at Pocono injured him severely. The crash caused Allison to suffer from memory loss and not even remember winning the 1988 Daytona 500.

#8: David Slays Goliath (1990)

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    The 1990 Daytona 500 was the closest, and most heartbreaking, race for Dale Earnhardt before 1998. Earnhardt was the dominant driver of the race, leading 155 laps. At one point in the race, Earnhardt led by almost 40 seconds. Unfortunately for Earnhardt, he would not lead the white flag lap.

    After a caution on lap 193, Earnhardt came in to pit. Little-known driver Derrick Cope stayed out after his crew chief Buddy Parrott told him to. After the restart, Earnhardt dispatched of Cope and retook the lead. After taking the white flag, Earnhardt was well on his way to winning his first 500. Earnhardt entered turn 3 and started to drastically slow. Many wondered, "Is Earnhardt out of gas?" It was worst; Earnhardt had run over debris. While Earnhardt was trying to keep control of his car, Cope sped by and shocked the Nascar world, winning his first ever race.

    The win helped Cope gain his 15 minutes of fame as he would win one more time in his career. The victory is considered by many the biggest upset in Nascar Sprint Cup history.

#7: Pearson Edges Petty (1976)

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    Richard Petty and David Pearson's rivalry during the 1970's defined the decade for Nascar. If Petty wasn't winning, it was Pearson. Between the two drivers, they amassed 302 wins. Of Pearson's wins, his victory at the 1976 Daytona 500 might be his most memorable.

    Pearson was going to win his second Daytona 500 the previous year before a late race spin on the backstretch cost him. Going into the final lap of the 1976 Daytona 500, Petty was leading David Pearson. As the two drivers went into turn 3, Pearson completed the pass on Petty. As Petty went under Pearson to pass him back coming out of turn 4, both cars spun out of control hitting the outside wall.

    Pearson's car spun to a stop near the entrance of pit road, while Petty spun close to the finish line. Many thought Petty had won, but he stopped about 20 yards from the finish. As Petty frantically tried to restart his stalled car, Pearson slowly passed by Petty to take the checkered flag. After Pearson crossed the finish line, Petty's crew got behind his car and helped Petty finish in second.

#6: The Ickey Shuffle (1989)

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    Darrell Waltrip had done just about everything heading into the 1989 Daytona 500. Waltrip had won three championships, over 75 races, and yet did not have a Daytona 500 trophy. Driving the "Tide Ride" for Rick Hendrick, Waltrip was about to check off another race on his to-do list.

    With 56 laps to go, Waltrip came in for a pit stop. It would be his last one of the day. Going 56 laps at Daytona without a pit stop was unheard of, but Waltrip and crew chief Jeff Hammond wanted to roll the dice. Twice before the checkered flag, Waltrip radioed in to say he was out of gas, only to have the engine pick back up. In his 17th try, Waltrip won the Daytona 500.

    What was more memorable was Waltrip's post-race interview and dance in Victory Lane. As Waltrip got out of his car he grabbed announcer Mike Joy yelling, "I won the Daytona 500, I won the Daytona 500!" Before Joy could get his question out, Waltrip interrupted to say, "Wait, wait, wait – this is the Daytona 500, right?"

    Waltrip capped off his day by doing the "icky shuffle," throwing his helmet to the ground. The dance was made famous by Bengals fullback Elbert Woods. Waltrip did his best imitation, but showed many why he drove cars instead of danced.

#5: Lee Petty Wins The First Daytona 500 (1959)

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    Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images

    In 1959, Nascar drivers went from the sands and high tides of Daytona Beach to the high banks of the Daytona International Speedway. For years, Bill France was looking to expand his stock car series and building a super-speedway fit the bill. Never before had drivers raced on a track as big as Daytona.

    The first race fielded 59 stock cars, 20 of which were convertibles. As the race winded down, Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp battled for the last 30 laps. Being the only two cars left on the lead lap, Petty and Beauchamp approached the lapped car of Joe Weatherly coming to the finish. As the cars crossed the line, Beauchamp was called the winner of the race.

    As Beauchamp was celebrating in the victory lane, Petty was protesting his case to Bill France Sr. Following the protest, France and his officials took three days to determine who the winner was. After reviewing photos and films of the finish, Petty was named the winner of the race. Not only did the controversy help Nascar's popularity, it helped keep put the young sport on the front pages of newspapers everywhere.

#4: The Dale and Dale Show (1993)

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    Dale Jarrett had won one race entering the 1993 Daytona 500. Joe Gibbs was known more for coaching football and winning Super Bowls than being a Nascar owner. Joe Gibbs Racing had only been in existence for a year when the 93' Daytona 500 came around. Jarrett and his team surprised many as he qualified on the outside row for the race. This would only the beginning of things to come.

    As the laps winded down, Jarrett's green and black Chevrolet Lumina charged to the front, battling Dale Earnhardt with a lap to go. As the cars took the white flag, Ned Jarrett, who was in the TV booth, was told by his producer to guide his son home for the win. That last lap call is one of the most memorable calls in Daytona 500 history.

    As Jarrett came out of turn 4 blocking Earnhardt, Ned Jarrett emphatically shouted "He's gonna make it, Dale Jarrett's gonna win the Daytona 500!" The win not only catapulted Dale Jarrett's career, but helped Joe Gibbs Racing turn into a competitive race team.

#3: Yarborough and Allison Throwdown (1979)

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    The 1979 Daytona 500 was a major stepping stone for Nascar. This was the first 500-mile race that was broadcast in its entirety in the history of the sport. Before this race, all races were tape delayed and shown after the race was completed. The race also introduced the in-car camera as well as the low-angle speed shot, which are now used in every race.

    The day of the race, most of the United States was snowed in by a blizzard. This act of God would help bring in more viewers for CBS, as many were stuck in their homes. The next day, many of these viewers would be talking about the race.

    As the 500 neared its conclusion, Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison distanced themselves from the rest of the field. As the two entered the backstretch on the final lap, Yarborough ducked under Allison, who went for the block. Yarborough got loose, turned right to hit Allison back, and the two went into the turn 3 wall. As both Yarborough and Allison got out of their cars, both started to throw punches. Bobby Allison, Donnie's brother, stopped to help his brother. Both drivers were eventually separated, but history was made. Many rarely remember who actually won the race – they only remember the boxing match on the backstretch.

#2: Nascar Loses Its Hero (2001)

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    The 2001 Daytona will be remembered as the darkest day in Nascar history. Even though Michael Waltrip finally won his first ever Daytona race, it was the events of the last lap that fans remember the most.

    Heading into the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Michael Waltrip was fighting off his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Behind them, team owner Dale Earnhardt was doing something no one had ever seen him do before – blocking other competitors. Sure, Earnhardt blocked when he was leading, but never before had Earnhardt blocked, so two other drivers could compete for a win. It was a father protecting his son, and an owner protecting his driver.

    Going into turn 4, Earnhardt got loose and went nose first into the wall. To many it was another wreck that Earnhardt would walk away from. Five minutes passed, then 10. Waiting turned into wondering. "Is Dale OK? I sure hope Dale is OK," chimed Darrell Waltrip in the TV booth. The announcement that followed a few hours later shocked not only Nascar, but the world.

    Nascar President Mike Helton got on a mic and made the announcement, "After the race at Daytona, we've lost Dale Earnhardt." No one knew how to react. How could Superman die? Did he say what I think he said?

    Nearly 10 years has passed since Earnhardt's death and the void is still there. There has not been another driver that has been able to step in and take the role Earnhardt had.

#1: Dale Finally Wins The Daytona 500 (1998)

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    David Taylor/Getty Images

    One-for-20. To many that would be a horrible sports statistic to be remembered for having. But to Dale Earnhardt, it was the best stat of his career.

    Entering the 1998 Daytona 500, many started wondering if Dale Earnhardt still had the drive to win. Earnhardt had gone on a 59 race winless streak, and blacked out at Darlington, baffling doctors. But 1998 was a new year, and Earnhardt started off by silencing his critics.

    Being paired with crew chief Larry McReynolds, Earnhardt dominated the 500, leading 107 of the 200 laps. With two laps to go, the caution waived after a backstretch wreck. Using the lapped car of Rick Mast as a pick, Earnhardt held off Bobby Labonte and took the yellow and white together to drive into the history books.

    After the race, Earnhardt was congratulated by every member of every crew on pit road. After Earnhardt finished high-fiving everyone, he took his car for a little spin in the grass and burned out the number 3. Earnhardt had finally won the one race at Daytona that had eluded him for so long. One-for-20 doesn't sound so bad after all. 

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